“A Country Called Amreeka,” Alia Malek, Free Press, 305 pages, $25:
November 15, 2009|By Diane Scharper,Special to The Baltimore Sun
A daughter of Syrian immigrants who took child-rearing seriously, Alia Malek holds a bachelor’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University, a law degree from Georgetown and a master’s in journalism from Columbia. Moreover, she attributes her success to her parents’ strict standards. Malek’s story is included in “A Country Called Amreeka,” a collection of mostly compelling narratives focusing on Arab-American immigrants. Arranging her book chronologically, Malek begins in 1963 with Birmingham, Ala. Then a hotbed of civil unrest, the city was home to Lebanese immigrants who endured racial profiling. Despite this, Ed Salem, subject of the chapter, achieved fame (as a member of the NFL) and fortune (as an entrepreneur) – with strong family support. If there’s an overriding theme to the book, it’s the importance of family ties. Another vignette profiles Luba Sihwail, her children and husband – from Baltimore. Learning of the 1967 Israeli invasion of Palestine, they become terrified because their parents are in danger. Sihwail was especially torn between her need to help her parents and protect her children. The book’s final chapters focus on a Maronite Roman Catholic priest who witnessed the fall of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and an Arab-American Marine who served in Iraq. His angst is almost palpable as he feels loyalty to his parents in the U.S., to his fellow Marines and to the Arabs who denounced him as a traitor. Ultimately, the book gives voice not just to the political side of the Middle Eastern conflict but also to the human side. Malek believes there’s more that unites us than divides us. She makes the point vividly.